For decades, India and Pakistan have allowed their dispute over Kashmir to fester, risking the sort of crisis that has led to the current land and air confrontation, escalating hostilities to a level not seen for nearly 50 years.
Viewed dispassionately, that is a grossly irresponsible stance for two nuclear powers to take, yet international pressure has never tried consistently to force a settlement, and India has resolutely refused to allow any third party to intervene.
That has not seemed unbearably risky for most of the 20 years since a limited war at Kargil on the Line of Control (LoC) in 1999. There have however been dangerous confrontations, notably following a terror attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 and on Mumbai hotels and other buildings in 2008.
A BJP-led government did not let the Indian air force or army cross into Pakistan during the Kargil fighting, although it massed troops on the border after the parliament attack. Congress did not take any publicized retaliatory action after the Mumbai attack.
Current events changed that when, in response to the February 14 terror attack in Kashmir by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) militant group, the Indian Air Force on February 26 attacked inside Pakistan territory for the first time since the two countries’ last full-scale war in 1971. Twelve Mirage (above) fighter jets, supported by a fleet of Sukhoi fighters and other aircraft, took part in the attack and, India claimed, destroyed a big JeM camp. Unsubstantiated reports put the death toll at 300.
Pakistan responded on the morning of February by trying to attack sites in India, and that led to the first encounter between the two air forces since 1971. Both sides lost one crashed fighter.
An Indian pilot was captured and was shown on social media being protected from angry Pakistani villagers, who pummeled his bloodied face and struck him with blows, Reuters reported. India protested after Pakistan’s information ministry posted a video on Twitter with the pilot, blindfolded, saying “I’ve got hurt and I would request some water.”
This level of conflict after a gap of nearly 50 years took the escalation to dangerous levels. Imran Khan (below), Pakistan’s relatively new prime minister, who is close to his county’s powerful military, then broadcast to the nation. Presumably responding to international pressure, he remarked, “where will this go if there is escalation.” He appealed for talks with India and added “better sense should prevail.”
India inevitably condemned the Pakistan attack and there were conflicting reports from both sides of what it had achieved. India also handed over a dossier alleging Pakistan’s and the JeM’s involvement in February 14 terrorism.
Also significant was a statement issued after a meeting of leaders from 21 Indian opposition parties that praised the Indian Air Force but expressed “deep anguish over the blatant politicization of the sacrifices made by our Armed Forces by leaders of the ruling party.” National security should “transcend narrow political considerations,” they said. The prime minister should have “followed convention and held an-all party meeting.”
Modi has been blatantly politicizing the crisis since February 14 to gain maximum political advantage in the run-up to India’s coming general election. Since the India air attack, he has made various public appearances declaring, “India is in safe hands..
Today (Feb 28) he is scheduled to address hundreds of thousands of party workers through his NaMo app, where he will no doubt repeat the “safe hands” pledge as an electioneering slogan.
The question is whether the fighting is over for now and whether India will allow the current crisis to lead to talks, before or after the general election – and then how far any talks will go. There is strong pressure on India’s social media and frenetic television panel discussions for more action to be taken against Pakistan, both because it struck back and for the way it has treated the captured pilot. But Modi might decide to wait for international pressure to build up on Pakistan to take more action against the terror groups.
In many ways, it has suited both counties not to try down the years to solve the intractable issues involved – though there is a simple solution which, eventually, will probably be what both sides will one day agree with a few adjustments. That is to make the existing 776 km Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir the permanent border.
Pakistan’s aggression is driven not by its democratically elected government but by the army, whose dominant role is boosted by the conflict and potential conflict, and by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country’s elite intelligence service, that aims to destabilize India by assisting with terror attacks.
That suits China, which is Pakistan’s patron and, to put it simply, approves of India being destabilized – providing the military conflict does not escalate beyond the level of the past two days. Significantly, it has appealed for both countries to exercise restraint.
India at one level would like peace. Earlier prime ministers, notably the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Congress Party’s Manmohan Singh, both had ambitions to make that happen, though their efforts were disrupted by terror attacks and cross-border incidents triggered by Pakistan.
When General Pervez Musharraf was Pakistan’s president, a possible agreement was reached in the 2000s for a ‘soft border’ with relaxed visa restrictions, cross-border travel and trade, and liaison arrangements on economic policy and other matters. This was, however, not approved (and might never have been) by the Pakistan army, nor by hard-line lobbies in either country. The talks faded away when Musharraf faced political problems in Pakistan and, in 2008, was ousted from office. Such a soft border solution is now not feasible until Pakistan closes down the Islamic terrorist bases used to attack India.
Modi tough line
Modi has not shared his predecessors’ persistent wish for peace and, after a few friendly gestures towards Nawaz Sharif, the former Pakistan prime minister, decided that taking a tough line on both Muslim Pakistan and the security situation in Indian Kashmir suited his purposes because it pleased his Hindu nationalist vote bank.
That ended a formal and broadly successful ceasefire on the LoC that had been introduced in 2003. Official figures show that the number of incidents came down from 3,401 in 2003 when 795 civilians, 314 security forces and 1,494 militants were killed to 118 incidents in 2012.
Modi’s rule has changed that and the Home Ministry’s number of terrorist incidents has risen from 222 in 2014 to 614 last year, while the number of security force personnel killed has gone from 47 in 2014 to 91 in 2018 – nowhere near so bad as 2003, but much worse than the intervening years.
The Modi government has made no significant moves to stem this decline, nor to engage in constructive talks on Kashmir. The hope must be that the current crisis will involve heavy and continued international pressure that forces the two sides to come to some sort of deal that will remove the nuclear risk.
For that to happen however, Pakistan will first have to be forced, again by international pressure, to close the terror camps.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.